How the Bernie Campaign and The New York Times Declared Open Season on Neera Tanden

Photograph courtesy of AP

Few people receive more vitriol from the left than Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Hillary Clinton adviser whose personal correspondences with the campaign were hacked and released by WikiLeaks in 2016. Although those who have interacted with her online and off will attest to her kindness and generosity (full disclosure: I’m one of them), you would not know it if you only looked at Bernie Twitter, who view her as the anti-Christ.

For example, on New Year’s Eve last year, I tweeted the following:

These are just a few of the 300+ responses I got:

This is not limited just to social media. Several of Bernie Sanders’s allies and members of his campaign have also expressed animosity towards Tanden and CAP. David Sirota, the journalist who had secretly been working for Sanders while writing articles criticizing of other Democrats, made no secret of his beef with her after she pointed out the inaccuracies in his reporting on Beto O’Rourke last December; and current Sanders press secretary Briahna Joy Gray sicced her followers on former CAP employee Eric Alterman for his Nation article, “The Liberal Case Against Bernie.” Most terrifying of all is this tweet from a follower of People for Bernie founder Winnie Wong, whose followers harassed Tanden after she used the term “alt-left” in August 2017:

The source of their animus is not solely due to her association with Clinton. In May 2016, Matt Bruenig, then working at the Demos think tank, attacked her over Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform, saying she “worked to starve my mother of cash assistance.” Tanden explained that she had nothing to do with this policy — she was in law school in 1996 — but that didn’t stop him from firing off more attacks. Shortly thereafter, he was fired from his job at Demos, most likely because he refused to stop harassing women online (he had also harassed Sarah Jeong that year). However, he implied to his fans that it was Tanden’s fault, a lie they now take as gospel.

So it was unsurprising when, last weekend, the Sanders 2020 campaign went nuclear on both Tanden and CAP, and were joined by The New York Times.

The Sanders Broadside

It all began when ThinkProgress, the blog associated with (but independent of) CAP, published an article and a video criticizing Sanders over his monetary gains since his last presidential campaign, which include earning $1.6 million in 2017, at least half of it from his books Our Revolution and Where We Go from Here. Both were more or less innocuous, but the Sanders campaign disagreed. On Saturday the 13th, he sent a letter to CAP accusing it of playing a “destructive” role in the upcoming campaign, and attacking Tanden directly:

“[CAP] leader Neera Tanden repeatedly calls for unity while simultaneously maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas. I worry that the corporate money CAP is receiving is inordinately and inappropriately influencing the role it is playing in the progressive movement.
“I will be informing my grassroots supporters of the foregoing concerns that I have about the role CAP is playing. Should your actions evolve in the coming months, I am happy to reconsider what kind of partnership we can have.”

Sanders followed up with a fundraising email with the subject line “We Are Under Attack,” attacking the think tank for accepting money from Bank of America, Blackstone, WalMart, and General Dynamics, among others.

ThinkProgress editor-in-chief Jodi Enda reasserted the blog’s independence from CAP, adding, “Political leaders should not be able to muzzle or stop coverage that they consider critical.” Tanden called the situation “unfortunate” and even admitted that she thought the video was too harsh.

Sanders wasn’t always this hard on CAP, however. Last year, when he wasn’t running for national office, he spoke at their conference and praised them for “all the important work that you have done over the years in terms of developing sensible economic, social, racial and environmental policies.” What’s more, his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, is a former CAP employee who wrote, as ThinkProgress’s first editor-in-chief, that:

The ThinkProgress blogs will oftentimes write items that are bolder, more strident, or more critical than what others here at the institution may be comfortable with. In my experience over the past four years here at CAPAF, that editorial freedom has allowed ThinkProgress to be on the leading edge of breaking news and analysis. And rest assured, we’ll continue to speak our mind freely.

Now, billionaire Tom Steyer is promising to leverage his powers as a CAP board member to stop them from attacking or criticizing Sanders. Very “independent” indeed.

Sanders, who has repeatedly shown hostility towards the press, did not make the best case for himself with this belligerence, and it did not help that the press did his bidding, as New York Times reporters Kenneth P. Vogel and Elizabeth Williamson jumped on the anti-Neera/anti-CAP bandwagon this morning.

How the Times Took the Bait

Whether intentionally or not, Vogel and Williamson’s piece, titled “The Rematch: Bernie Sanders vs. a Clinton Loyalist,” fed the flames of this debate with its portrayal of Tanden as a testy, pugnacious boss, opening with an anecdote of her punching Shakir in 2008 after he asked Hillary Clinton a gotcha question about the Iraq War (“I didn’t slug him, I pushed him,” Tanden responds, though Vogel and Williamson point out that she’s “still angry.”) Further descriptions and quotes, some taken from the WikiLeaks emails, imply that she doesn’t respect her co-workers’ opinions, will fire anyone who steps out of line, lacks ethical standards when it comes to accepting donations, and has “few rivals” on Twitter for “bellicosity.”

The person most extensively quoted throughout the article, however, is not a political insider or co-worker but Tanden’s mother Maya. A 78-year-old Indian-American woman whose lack of a filter recalls Sophia Petrillo, Estelle Getty’s character on The Golden Girls, Maya offers nothing but praise for her daughter, who she called “aggressive,” and frank assessments of the 2020 race, warning that Sanders won’t get a “free pass” this time around.

Although it’s hard not to be charmed by her, including her quotes in the article is a breach of journalistic ethics. In a statement released today via her son Raj, she said the following:

“For the first time in my life, a reporter contacted me out of nowhere and said she wanted to talk to me for what I thought was a nice story about Neera. I didn’t understand my words would be used in the story and once I understood they could be, I called her back to clarify that. Only then did she tell me my words were ‘on the record,’ a term I’ve never heard before. I feel very misled, and it is shameful The New York Times would use my words to hurt my daughter.”

We expect Times reporters to know better because the paper represents the highest echelon of American journalism. Vogel and Williamson’s failure to explain the rules of the interview to Maya Tanden is a grave mistake that should not be tolerated, especially given that they could have gone to several other people who would have spoken eloquently on her daughter’s behalf:

Instead, we get a piece that takes advantage of a senior citizen and uses misogynistic tropes to score cheap points:

A piece describing exactly what Neera and CAP do would provide a much-needed tonic to the disinformation spreading like kudzu throughout the social media-sphere, but that’s not the piece the Times wanted to write, nor is it one the Sanders campaign would have liked. Instead, they want to launch attacks that heighten divides between Democrats and a left flank that would have rebelled against free ice cream if Hillary Clinton had proposed it for her platform. And it served its purpose: the article has been well-received by those on or adjacent to Bernie Twitter, earning retweets from filmmaker Josh Fox, Justice Democrats strategist Waleed Shahid, and journalist David Klion.

It’s clear from these events that the Sanders is running a campaign based on one issue: vengeance. These attacks on Neera and CAP, who they believe backed the wrong horse last time, are only the beginning of their scorched-earth strategy that could possibly give us four more years of Donald Trump. If he and his unwitting enablers at The New York Times will not change this strategy, then it’s up to Democrats to make sure it fails. We would do good by listening and heeding to the women of color who make up the base of our party — women like Neera Tanden.